Clash of the Practices

Scaling business vs. Building user-centric product

As designers, we base our practice on championing our users by understanding their contexts and problems. The word "empathy" becomes our daily mantra. We strive to put humans at the center of our design process.

However, in real situations, our method and mindset as designers is not the only approach in building a (digital) product. For instance, your product team or business stakeholders may be more familiar with the growth hacking approach. It is a methodology that leverages data and rapid experimentation to drive product growth popularized by Sean Ellis, which has been used by the tech giants like Facebook, AirBnB, and Dropbox.

Both practices, design thinking and growth hacking have been shown to drive the company's progress. Sometimes, however, the word growth may sound uncomfortable for designers. Talking about data, experimentation, and metrics may feel like the focus is on how the product can benefit the business side solely. This difference in practice sometimes places designers like a Jedi who try to defend users against Sith forces who don't empathize with users and only want to take advantage of them.

In reality, the growth hacking approach doesn't set the users aside at all. A book by Sean Ellis, Hacking Growth, proposes the famous funneling framework, AARRR (Acquisition, Activation, Revenue, Retention, Referral) coined by Dave McClure, to experiment with different strategies in each funnel. For example, in the Activation funnel, he suggests to identify and test possible AHA moments of our products that users love. Another example is Sean taking references from The Fogg Behavior Model to understand human behavior by experimenting with three elements of motivation, abilities, and prompts in Retention funnel. Growth hacking is not pure evil, it's not a Darth Sidious trying to rule the galaxy.

Even though the approach may seem different, you will see that the users are always at the center of the process. Only the starting point is different. Designers are used to starting the process by understanding the users. Meanwhile, your product manager or business stakeholders starts with hypotheses for experimentation. Since they have plenty of ideas, they want to test which would work in increasing the metrics.

Yes, you might find some stakeholders tend to choose a more pragmatic approach in trying out ideas that would successfully promote growth – especially in an agile working environment due to the immense pressure to chase the north star. And while there's nothing wrong with this, but good practice can turn sour if done haphazardly. It is important to practice thoughtful experimentation, as suggested by Julie Zhuo. Otherwise, it could fall into the enjoyment of a short-term gain and trade other things that work long-term such as trust in the product.

These past few years, companies like Dropbox, Pinterest, and Facebook have been practicing growth design to balance scaling the business and building a user-centric product. I think we are still in the early stage of growth design. It's interesting to see this combined practice will be more mature to synergize business growth and user-centered design, like Rey and Kylo Ren, who eventually work together.

  1. Defining Growth Design: The Guide to the Role Most Startups are Missing
  2. Dave McClure – AARRR Framework
  3. The Fogg Behavior Model
  4. Sean Ellis
  5. The Agony and Ecstasy of Building with Data by Julie Zhuo